The Seagull Who Ate 17 Plastic Soldiers – “You’re going to hate that, right?”

Upon arrival at Leiden Central Station, biologist Auke-Florian Hiemstra will meet you. Not least: because of his portrait, several tens of meters in size, which hangs on a facade next to those of other well-known citizens of Leiden. He came here for the first time more than twenty years ago, when he went to the Naturalis Museum of Natural History with his mother. “As a child I was an avid shell collector. We spent every autumn break at Schiermonnikoog and there you had a wonderful shell museum, Paal 14, where I could find every day. Turns out Leiden has a bigger nature museum, Naturalis, so I wanted to go there too.

“At the end of the day, my mother and I walked out again over the then footbridge and a group of students bicycling in front of us. Maybe they are biology students. My mother said maybe they are biology students. My mouth opened in surprise. I never thought about the fact that you can learn on your own to become a biologist. Since From that moment on, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up, and what city I wanted to live in. As a student I cycled under that footbridge every day. And I always looked up.”

Now Naturalis has ‘its nest,’ says Heemstra. “After a childhood where I moved every few years, this is now my home base.” Here, at the research institute next door to the museum, he is working on his PhD track, which also deals with nesting. Or more precisely: about the structures of a bird’s eye and other animals. “Animals are wonderful architects. Using twigs and leaves and mud they can build wonderful homes. But in the city, you see another building material being added on a regular basis: plastic. I’m investigating how and why they use those materials, and what the advantages and disadvantages are.”

disposable cup

Heemstra came up with the idea when he went canoeing on the Leiden canals with his girlfriend, and saw how a harrier had incorporated a disposable plastic cup into her nest. “The day before there was a big party because of Leidens Ontzet and the canal was full of those cups: 7,000 cups on 100 meters of the canal. Then we started a campaign against those cups, so that the municipality switched to reusable deposit cups. But there is a lot of plastic waste in the canals, That’s why we’ve been organizing clean-ups for years: every Sunday we walk through the canals with a group of volunteers.

“But the image of that bird never left me, and when I started to get interested I saw a lot of plastic in the nests. Originally the bird was a marsh bird that built its nests out of reeds, now it uses plastic straws… In one nest I examined there were more than fifty! And I saw the same Once a bird’s nest was wrapped with a meter of tape, so sturdy that you could go over it with a speedboat and the nest would still be intact.

“So plastic can certainly have advantages for such a bird. But at the same time it can be an environmental trap that guar birds get entangled in. Think face masks: nice, soft nesting material, but those rubber bands are a disaster.” And he stresses that the bird is certainly not the only species that uses plastic. “Swans, moles, squirrels: they all sometimes process packaging materials and other waste in their nests. We’ve organized a citizen science project to collect data on plastic in animals’ nests.”

There are also animals that mistake plastic for food. In the children’s book about urban nature Heemstra wrote last year, Parrots platform and cricket criminals, showing an image of a ball of stork vomit filled with elastic bands. “And I read a scholarly article about a seagull that ate 17 toy soldiers. I can still imagine one. But seventeen! You’d resist that, wouldn’t you? Who knows, maybe he was snacking mindlessly, like I do potato chips.”

Dieuwertje Bravenboer’s photo
Dieuwertje Bravenboer’s photo
Dieuwertje Bravenboer’s photo
Dieuwertje Bravenboer’s photo
Diewertje Bravenboer’s photo

Soldiers game

Another shocking image is that of a chick that has become entangled in the thumb of a latex glove. With the photo by Hiemstra, he was nominated for the Audience Award for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. The winner will be announced at the end of January.

The idea for the book arose after Heemstra read that children nowadays identify more with Pokémon characters than with real animals. “I’ve found it so hard for virtual nature to beat reality, and I want to urge these kids: Go outside! Adventure is all around you, especially in the city. When you watch nature on TV, it always feels like a show away from your bed. And if you go On a safari yourself, you’ll often just photograph the butt of such an animal.

“It’s a shame that people only appreciate the exotic. I heard from a colleague that he had guests from South Korea who wanted to photograph every bird because they thought it was a special animal. Coates! So they’re excited about a bird just like us, like a zebra or a panda.” In his book, he hopes to allow readers, including adults, to look at the same nature with different eyes. “Of course I hope they eventually close the book and go on an adventure themselves with the corresponding quest map.” In any case, he will continue to share his amazement with the general public. “Such a monster can’t join a talk show, we have to.”

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